Car design guru James Randle tells Kam Patel how his taste for speed has been overtaken by concerns about pollution of the planet
James Neville Randle leans back in his chair and laughs as he remembers one of the sillier things said to him recently; that with so many trucks on the motorway, it makes sense to drive a heavy car because it offers more protection.
The truck-shy driver was quietly put straight. Randle told him that in a head-on crash with a 40-tonner travelling at speed his "heavy car" might just provide him with an extra millisecond of life: "As if an extra few hundred kilogrammes is going to make any difference. With cars, Newton always wins," he says with a chuckle.
As one of Britain's leading car designers, former chief engineer of Jaguar and designer of one of the world's fastest sports cars, Randle should know. Now director of the automotive engineering centre at Birmingham University, he started in the trade as a 16-year-old apprentice and headed up his first full car project, the Rover 2000TC, at the tender age of 25. Garel Rhys, professor of motor industry economics at Cardiff says he is "a visionary engineer", one of a handful of people who, despite the foreign takeover of the British motor industry, maintains the country's cutting-edge reputation for innovative car design.
Jaguar cars, developed by Randle's teams, are acclaimed for their ultra-smooth running and handling, not to mention their sensuous, charismatic style, so it makes sense when he describes great engineering as a work of art, a perfect partnership of form and function. "You can see all sorts of engineering that are actually forms of art. I love aeroplanes for example and the Spitfire for me is a beautiful piece of work." So beautiful that he incorporated the shape of the Spitfire wing into the windows of the XJ220 - "it seemed appropriate", he explains. This sense of aesthetics also accounts for his friendship with the fashion designer, the late Jean Muir. "Had Jean been an engineer, she would have been superbI she was the epitome of the artist-artisan and had a great feel for materials and processes; the kind of feel I think good engineers have. I am sure she would have recognised good design to be universal."
So how does Randle, for whom creating something in three dimensions is "one of the most sublime activities life has to offer", approach his work? The 212mph XJ220 sports car, a Jaguar project undertaken without official sanction and in the team's spare time, started life as a cardboard model in his sitting room. Laughing, he says he is "a great believer in CAE, cardboard-aided engineering", (as opposed to the other CAE - computer-aided engineering, which he has his doubts about). "Engineering design is about space, it's about compromise and it's important to do a lot of thinking and come up with lots of designs. Cardboard is a great material for thinking in three dimensions." Typically he will come up with 40 possible designs before focusing on the final one.
But many car designers are increasingly relying on computer software to fill in their ideas. Randle complains: "There is a fond belief that you can design everything on computer, but computers have serious limitations which engineers have to recognise." Powerful software packages enable an unprecedented level of analysis of systems designed by engineers. This can be valuable, but not if the software is accorded too much respect. "If you are not careful, every design emerges in the same way and function is always driving style. And that happening over time can result in the 'vision thing', if you like, no longer being there: you've been seduced by the software system."
Too much creative energy nowadays is biased towards the production end of car design, says Randle. As a result conceptual design is suffering, resulting in "thoroughly competent but rather bland and boring cars". He would like to see designers spending less time using computer-aided engineering and instead letting their thoughts roam free with the help of just a 2B pencil and pad. "When they rely too much on software, they create something on the screen and don't want to change it. They come up with one solution and it is often not a good one. But the software is so powerful you can analyse and correct the design to a great degree in spite of it being fundamentally poor: it's **** cooked to perfection."
He recalls that in his early days at Jaguar, designers worked on big boards. In the evenings, he would walk round and look at everyone's work, leaving notes suggesting changes. "When it's all done on screen, the way the software makes you structure your design means that it doesn't allow other people in to make a creative contribution, it doesn't allow my experience, for example, to get into somebody else's work. And for me that's a big problem."
When it comes to the ultimate test, selling, Randle says he likes being involved with cars that have "sex appeal". As Jaguar's director of product engineering throughout the 1980s he was responsible for bringing to market a host of major designs, including the XJ40 saloon. He recalls the psychology of selling: "If someone was looking at a Jaguar in the showroom and they went up to stroke it I once they'd put their hands on the car I knew we'd got them. The vehicle's got to have that appeal that makes people just can't help but touch it."
The next stage was to get the customer into the car - the way the door opens, the way the handle feels... "With Jaguars we always tried to make the inside feel like a cockpit, it closes you in and it's got that sort of feel which says: 'I am in control, this is not just a motor car, this is something special, and I am special because I am going to drive it'." It worked a treat. Randle estimates that about one in two potential customers who got to the stage of test driving a Jaguar bought the car.
He left Jaguar after 26 years in 1991, just two years after a Pounds 1.6 billion takeover of the company by Ford. The American giant appointed its own people in key positions and Randle was sidelined to become head of advanced engineering, losing his powerful, hands-on role. "It was all a bit of an unhappy experience. I can't deal with the narrow focus that seems to be part and parcel of giant corporations. I wasn't happy with the new role I was given."
But things are looking up. Demand for his expertise in the industry has escalated over the past year. Commercial secrecy prevents him from talking about the projects he is involved in but they revolve around Randle's extensive research on environmentally-friendly car design and technology.
Randle began working on the problem of car emissions a decade ago at a time when many in the industry were perhaps hoping the problem of global warming would go away. "It's obvious we have to do something about it - it's important for our children and grandchildren," he says.
His recent work has focused on developing cleaner engines and lightweight structures to reduce fuel consumption. "If anything motor cars are getting worse in terms of carbon dioxide production. They are also getting heavier, with all the penalties that implies for fuel consumption. I don't know why they make them so heavy. They really should not need to weigh more than 700-800 kilogrammes. The average weight is now 1,300 kilogrammes and that is shamefully heavy."
He finds it "disturbing" when he goes to environmental debates to find people still not convinced that global warming is occurring. "There is so much evidence. We can see ways of ameliorating the problems in the car industry but total solutions like efficient fuel cell technology are going to take a few decades."
Such solutions will require a determined effort on the part of the industry to experiment with radical designs and take them to market. Randle believes it is going to be difficult because of an in-built conservatism in the car industry which is hard to shake off. He thinks emerging markets like China and India are where the industry can start afresh: the mere fact that the market in these countries is not fully developed means it might be more receptive to new ideas. "If we are really serious about global action on the environmental front, we have to provide developing countries with the best design, engineering and technology we have. I appreciate people's concerns about this, worries about economic leapfrogging over relatively short timescales and so on, but I don't see how else you can get a faster response to radical ideas, get them to the market quickly and prove they are commercially and environmentally viable."
Britain of course no longer has any indigenous volume car maker. The last, Rover, fell to Germany's BMW in 1994. Randle says that the reasons for the demise of the British motor car industry, culminating in the hammering it took from Japan's car makers in the 1970s and 1980s, are complex but much of the blame must be borne by the "naivety" of successive postwar governments and by poor management. "State-owned firms were exhorted to export but it was hopeless because the quality of the product, with notable exceptions, was so poor. And this wasn't being recognised." He adds: "There are people who say the real postwar problem for manufacturing was the unions. Well I don't believe that; I think governments and management get the kind of unions they deserve."
Japan's car makers deserve full credit for the "stunning" advances they made in production technology and manufacturing management in the 1970s. But Randle has always found it "funny that we regarded it all as some amazing thing which we had never thought about. After all, a lot of these techniques were used to great effect during the war by Britain and the United States but we somehow forget that - and paid the price."
He does not think British industry should be too enamoured of Japanese manufacturing concepts and working practices. "They require an awful lot of structure which becomes difficult to change because there isn't enough flexibility. By copying the Japanese or anyone else slavishly, the best we can hope to be is second and I'd like to think we've got more to offer than that."